Saturday, January 28, 2006

Friday marked the 33rd anniversary of the signing of the Vietnam Peace Accords, the agreement that was supposed to bring “peace with honor” and end the conflict in Southeast Asia that bitterly divided Americans.

Some of the current vitriol in U.S. politics dates back that far, a poison that still seems to frustrate any effort toward civility and bipartisanship on almost anything.

Fittingly, the ceremonies in Paris were marked by an eerie silence, with no word or gesture to reflect relief that years of war were coming to an end.

Actually, there were two sessions. In the morning, officials from the United States, North Vietnam, South Vietnam and the Viet Cong signed the documents. In the afternoon, only the United States and North Vietnam took part.

The accords were ambiguous, a result of compromises that permitted all the Vietnamese delegations to give their own contradictory meanings and still allow the U.S. to claim victory.

Almost from the start, doubts were cast on whether the accords would establish any sort of lasting peace — doubts that proved well founded.

By the end of the next month, however, the last U.S. combat troops had left Vietnam. As far as Washington was concerned, the United States had achieved its goals.

Had Richard Nixon remained president and not come to grief in the Watergate mess, the peace might have held. Many overseas considered him unpredictable. Fear of what he might do could have deterred the North Vietnamese from breaking the agreements and resuming their invasion of the South.

But two years after the last U.S. combat units had gone home, Hanoi launched the first phase of a new offensive. In seven weeks, the South Vietnamese army had collapsed and the North’s forces held the central highlands and the east coast.

Then the North paused — partly to regroup for the final drive on Saigon but also to see if the United States would act. The United States was not willing to re-enter the battle.

So the offensive went on, and on April 29 the United States ordered the helicopter evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon and as many South Vietnamese as possible, a total of 7,000. At its overstaffed embassy, the United States had a handful of diplomats, a beefed-up Marine guard and a bevy of CIA agents.

The United States considers Jan. 1, 1961, as the war’s starting date and counts casualties from then.

So, the official price — in human terms — of more than a decade of war was 58,226 American military deaths.

For the Vietnamese, the toll was even higher — much higher. In April 1995, Vietnam said a total of a million Vietnamese combatants and 4 million civilians had been killed in the conflict. These figures have been generally accepted.

One lingering controversy from the war has been the fate of the 2,300 Americans listed as “Missing in Action.” There have been charges that some of these have actually been held as prisoners. The Vietnamese deny this.

Another still-felt effect is what happened to the U.S. military — something many fear is happening again in the Iraq war. Even though the U.S. Army and the other services won significant victories (the Ia Drang Valley and Khe San come easily to mind) and not only eliminated the Viet Cong as a fighting force but also convinced North Vietnamese regulars that at best Hanoi could only get a stalemate, Americans felt they had not won, and the military began looking for people to blame for the loss.

Also, U.S. military forces were in a shambles. It took about two decades to repair the damage. By the start of the Persian Gulf War, the U.S. fielded as good an Army as it ever had. At the start of the Iraq war, while probably too small, the Army was qualitatively still equal to that fielded for the Persian Gulf War.

Now, again, it will probably take decades to rebuild the nation’s ground forces. Whether the Reserves and the National Guard can be maintained as viable units is an open question, with rampant bitterness a threat for the future.

It would be nice if one could see valuable lessons were learned from the Vietnam experience, but if there have been any they seem to have been hidden in the maze of fresh mistakes.

The only saving grace readily apparent is the continuing heroism and willingness to serve of so many young Americans.

Stroube Smith, a former copy editor for The Washington Times, is a free-lance writer.

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